everyday banality year one

Back in America proper for three months, and banal lifedetails were thin on the ground, because I have done nothing, or at least nothing alien enough for observation to happen. I’m now squatting in Alaska for the third summer in a row, here to do even less, but at least receive some money for my trouble. This: old hat. There is nothing to say.

Travel back with me now to the days of high adventure.

My first full day in Chiang Mai I woke with the conviction that I would walk the circuits I knew from before and so ease into the city. A half-mile later, after I made the mistake of pausing at length before the entrance to a wat (I had gone so far without a single call of “HELLO TUK TUK?” and so become unwary), I found myself speaking to Wongchia (pronounced Wongchai in a terrible affront to the romanization he was so insistent upon), a fifty-five year old temple painter who wanted to know how long I’d be in town because, as luck would have it, he just loved showing people around. And, hey, it was his day off, and he could show me some sights immediately. He asked me, do you plan on going to see the monkey school? I said, maybe sometime, I have a lot of time. He said: I’ll show you temples, beautiful temples.

Wongchia had many American friends, he said, showing me their names and addresses scrawled in a little book. He would be my friend, my first good friend in Chiang Mai, I’d see.

After five minutes of insistent chat, I decided what-the-hell and climbed onto the back of his motorbike

Wongchia took me to temples, as he had said, and I’d only already been to one of them before. Wongchia took me to watch professional abusers of snakes and monkeys. At the snake show, there was a sign out front covered with photographs of the snake handlers with Sylvester Stallone. Before the monkey show, while I stood before a cage watching an irate monkey whooping and swinging and carrying on, my attention was drawn to the woman that sold tickets, who had been asking Wongchia why I was mad.

“I’m not mad, ma’am.”

You’re not? You look mad. I was wondering what he had done to make you mad.

“He didn’t do anything, my face is just like this.”

This sums up roughly half my interactions with Thai people over the course of three months.

We drank sprite on a patio, thirty feet from a sun-bleached tiger that paddled around a concrete pond while a man harassed it with a bundle of bamboo leaves on a stick and nearby tourists had their pictures taken with another, more sedate, probably drugged tigers in the shade (later I’d meet an American familiar with foreign volunteers at the place, who insisted the tigers could be handled during the day only because they were nocturnal, and would ignore people while they tried to sleep). Wongchia ferried me around and never actually asked for money, just went on at length about what good friends we already were, and how poor he was. Wongchia’s weekend gig is probably making “friends” with foreigners and collecting kickbacks from the shows he brings them to while hoping for tips.

While we sat watching the tigers, Wongchia began speaking of his sister’s shop, saying that we could go by and have a beer, and I could speak to “Mike”, whose English was much better than Wongchia’s. I assured him that his English was fine, and he told me that not so much: half the time, he couldn’t understand me.

I told him that, in my experience, half the time native English speakers couldn’t understand me.

Still, we went to his sister’s shop. As it turned out, his sister was a tailor, and I found myself speaking to her business partner, Mike. Mike is ethnically Nepalese, his father and grandfather Gurkha who served in Burma back when colonialism was in full swing. He’s been in Thailand most of his life, a tailor for twenty-two years. His English was much better than Wongchia’s, but he still had trouble understanding me. We chatted over Chang beer poured out of cans some underling picked up, Mike regularly tearing a few squares from a roll of toilet paper to wipe the glasses’ sweat off of his table. We talked and talked and Mike really, really wanted to make me a suit. I eventually consented to pants: linen, which proved to be the most comfortable pants I’ve ever worn. This ethnically Nepalese tailor really knew his stuff, but I couldn’t afford a suit, and resolved to avoid his shop in the future if I could manage it.

Both Mike and Wongchia gave me their cell numbers. I ran into the latter a few days later, on the street, and he took me to lunch (some soup place that doesn’t cater to foreigners). I paid, and he talked about problems that had risen with his scooter, and how poor he was, and went through a lot of pains to imply his need for my money without asking for it. For my part, already a bit uncomfortable with the mixture of social and business I was faced with, I pretended ignorance of his implications. He and Mike both claimed friendship with incredible conviction while transparently working angles, which wasn’t something I was used to.

He wanted to take me to see some hill tribes, and seemed confused by my “I’m here for months and in no hurry to go trekking” attitude. Midway through the ride back to the guest house he insisted on giving me, I consented to something the following weekend.

He said: hill tribes, and picked me up wearing a Dale Earndhart shirt under his chest’s garden of Buddha amulets. He didn’t take me straight to these hill tribes; instead, he drove me to an elephant camp, where I paid far too much to watch elephants play soccer and then ride one, over a mountain, this great impersonal beast jostling me on its back, while the mahout insisted “America good!” over and over, and I replied that I hoped so. The longneck village at trip’s end was a long lane between shacks on low stilts-where they sold the same handicrafts you could find all over the city, for less-leading up to a woven-roofed church where a traditional spirit house jockied for position with a gigantic,bright-painted crucifix. The carefully-controlled (I tried wandering off the prescribed path at one point, and was shouted at) hill-tribe experience took about fifteen minutes.

On the way back to the city, Wongchia surprised me with trips to factory stores I hadn’t the slightest interest in (I wandered around an enormous jewelry store, then a laquerware place, just long enough to be polite before leaving empty-handed) and then, what do you know, his sister’s shop, where I sat and had long, circuitous conversations with Mike, who said his customers were like his brothers, and if I needed any help at all with anything ever I could call him, and by the way he would really like to make me a very nice suit.

I came to realize the obvious: every time I made Wongchia my nominal guide I would find myself going round and round with Mike, the tailor, trying to politely put off the purchase of this suit. I decided to not call Wongchia anymore, to “lose” his number. This worked out, until my final day in Chiang Mai.

A walk, in the late morning, to pursue lunch, and then a few places scattered around town I had seen, but never gotten around to really visiting. A walk, interrupted by a tuk tuk that pulled over near Thae Pae Gate. I made to shake my head, to dismiss that tuk tuk, but then I recognized Wongchia.

I crouched down on the sidewalk to speak to him, beneath the low vehicle’s canopy. After a moment, he climbed out to stand, and it was a few before I finally stood straight again myself.

He asked me where I had been, and why I hadn’t called him. I told him I had misplaced his number, and been out of town a lot, suspecting that “being your friend is too awkward and expensive for this particular foreigner” might not go over well. He insisted on taking me to another lunch that I paid for, which was alright, and we had a polite, but strained meal where he informed me that he was in the tuk tuk business now, had been for about a month, and tried to convince me I needed to let him cart me around for the rest of the day, he had some places to show me.

He mentioned factory stores again.

He didn’t seem to believe me when I said I was running out of money, though it was true. I said: I need to settle me guest house bill, which was also true, and wanted to walk to some places before I was scheduled to do that. He gave me his number again. I told him that if I come back to town, I’ll call him, and maybe I will, if money’s not too tight that trip.

There is always the idea that, as the farang, you can pay for anything and everything.


Now I’m in Skagway, Alaska, with no work for four days, so I read three books in two of those days, listen to drunks outside my window at 4AM, contend with a broken insulin pump with a sort of canned, frantic despair. I pound this out, on my netbook, and maybe the wireless at the library will be working, tomorrow, for long enough to upload it.

Maybe.

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~ by ironcupshrug on 05/02/2010.

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